We’ve had much worse winter days in our past

Published 9:58 am Thursday, January 4, 2018

We’ve been experiencing some unusually cold weather for several days now, and it got me to thinking of what’s the coldest weather ever experienced in the Valley.

I’ve heard tall tales about it being so cold that someone’s great-great grandmother once boiled water in a cast-iron pot on a wood-burning stove. Just to see how cold it was, she threw that hot water out the back door only to have it turn to ice before hitting the ground. Can you top that?

I’ve heard believable stories – and have seen some old photos – of a day it was so cold the Chattahoochee River froze solid in West Point and people could walk across the river on really thick ice.

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I did some research this week on the  Valley’s coldest days on record. For many years, the all-time record low was minus five degrees on the Fahrenheit scale. This took place on Feb. 13, 1899. It was part of a major weather event known as the Blizzsrd of 1899. Every state in the Eastern U.S. was affected.

Alabama got no snow, but the Arctic event  produced all-time lows of minus 17 in Valley Head, minus 13 in Scottsboro, minus 11 in Muscle Shoals, minus 10 in Birmingham and minus 5 in Chambers County.

That record was broken on Jan. 21, 1985, when the mercury fell to minus eight in the Valley. It was enough to kill some fig buses and grapevines my grandfather had tended for years in his orchard. The scuppernongs eventually came back but the figs were gone for good.

One of the best first-person accounts I’ve heard of that frigid night was told to me by a Mr. Abercrombie, who worked for years with the Huguley Water System. At a retirement reception for him quite a few years back, I asked him if his work, like most jobs, had its good days and its bad days.

Mr. Abercrombie was a pleasant sort of fellow who smiled a lot, as he did when he nodded that there were both good days and bad days for him and one worst day ever: Jan. 21, 1985.

He wasn’t smiling when he talked about it.

The unprecedented cold weather caused many underground water pipes to  burst. He and his co-workers were up all night and well into the next day digging up the cold, hard ground and replacing broken pipes with new ones. I could tell it was a night he’d never forget.

Another memorable cold-weather day for the local area took place on Dec. 12, 1962, when the temperature fell to one degree above zero at the Interstate Telephone Company in West Point, our official weather station at the time. There’s a memorable photo of that day in The Westpointer. It shows a group of Langdale junior high students standing on a footbridge over a frozen Moore’s Creek. Another photo shows some Langdale kindergarten students standing on a frozen-over fountain in the LaFayette Lanier Memorial Park.

In its afternoon edition on Dec. 13, The Valley Times-News reported that the wintry weather was the cause of some big trouble for local motorists. “The near-zero temperatures are playing havoc with auto cooling systems and engines,” a front-page article reads. “Service stations and garages are being kept at a frantic pace towing and repairing stalled autos.”

Makes me think of the famous statement sometimes attributed to Ben Franklin, sometimes to Mark Twain and sometimes to Will Rogers: “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it.”